America’s Crisis of Denial

In the most recent Republican presidential wanna-bee debate (23 Sept 2011, in Florida), two themes stood out.  One was the open hostility to the federal government, which the candidates seem to believe is socialistic in its very nature; set against the feds were the states and local governments, particularly emphasized (“local, local, local”) when the wanna-bees were talking about education (several candidates promised to dismantle the Department of Education once they were elected–same with the EPA).  States Rights has been a mantra of conservatives for decades and in their minds is linked with individual rights.  The other theme was American Exceptionalism; the candidates used such phrasing as America “is the envy of the world,” “America is the hope of the earth,” (Romney) and emphasized the importance of American sovereignty (immigration) and competitiveness (education and the economy).  All the candidates believe in freedom, but given their positions on health care, Social Security, and labor unions, their notions of what constitutes freedom seem to exclude the freedom that comes from good health, adequate income, and the right of ordinary people to form associations for their own betterment (none of them suggested disbanding the Chamber of Commerce).

It seems to me that there is some contradiction between these two themes.  One wonders how a country made up of states and localities, loosely associated under a weak federal government (“starve the beast”) can have any kind of position or influence on the rest of the world or in any way maintain its “competitiveness,” let alone remain Number One.  But perhaps it is contradictions such as these which reveal a deeper contradiction, one that affects Democrats as well as Republicans as they try to manage the current crises.

For despite the rhetoric on both the left and the right (whether centrist or extemist), America is no longer the hope of the earth or the light to the world–if it ever in fact was.  I cannot think of any extant nation or regime that has modeled itself on the United States, either in government or economics.  Certainly Europe, despite its long period of dependency on the United States after World War II, has gone its own way in many regards (which may account for conservative Republicans’ hostility and dismissiveness towards “Old Europe”); despite its defeat in the Cold War, Russia has not demonstrated a desire to follow an American-inspired course of post-Communist development, and China’s state-run blend of Communism and capitalism is anathema to our conservatives (which is no doubt why China is more often spoken of as an enemy than a friend).  Latin America has not followed our lead (not surprising, given our history of interference there and support of dictators), nor has Africa.  Even the so-called “Arab Spring” blossomed more from internal factors than from any idealization of the United States or the West in general; there is in fact in the Middle East a large residue of resentment towards the United States.  What has passed for American influence has generally been its military power rather than its ideals.  (Japan’s American-authored constitution was, of course, imposed upon it by force.)  That the American military and its budget is untoucable even in these difficult budgetary times underscores the extent to which our influence is more by force of arms than by force of our ideals.  (But it has been ever thus in the history of great nations.)

The crisis we are facing is not just an economic crisis (we have lived through many of those) nor is it just a crisis of identity.  It is more deeply a crisis of denial.  What we are denying is that the United States is no longer the only player on the court, no longer the sole super power of the world.  What we are denying is that there is no longer any real meaning to the very idea of a super power.  America is going through tough times, but it is not really in decline–rather, other nations, notably China, India, Brazil, are rising to equality with the United States.  And while Europe too is currently in crisis, it seems to me likely that the European nations will emerge eventually from this crisis more firmly a union than they have been.  A serious crisis concentrates the mind.  With the old simple dichotomy of democracy vs. communism gone, there is room for a greater variety of solutions to human problems, and the American model is now one among many from which peoples can choose.

The problem for American politics, as well as for the choices American’s citizens make in terms of consumption, work, education, etc., is that we have yet to recognize and acknowledge how much our position in the world has changed.  We can no longer expect to dictate to others the terms of their relations with us or each other; we can no longer expect to borrow and spend, on both a national and individual level, as we have in the past, because other nations also want to borrow and spend on something like our level; we can no longer expect oil and other commodities to be cheap when others want those commodities as well, and have the money to buy them.  We cannot continue to consume the lion’s share of the world’s resources as if that were our national birthright.  We have yet to recognize and acknowledge that other nations are already or will soon be our equals and that that does not mean we are in decline but that they are “movin’ on up.”

Our biggest mistake would be to continue to believe that our military might can guarantee our primacy.  President Obama’s actions regarding the revolution in Libya were instructive:  rather than send in American troops to topple Qaddafi, he chose to work with other nations to support the rebels and level the battle field and let the Libyans liberate themselves.  One hopes that he had learned the lesson that the United States could not impose a form of government on another nation.  But it is also instructive to recall that many American conservatives wanted to invade Libya, much as we invaded Iraq under George W. Bush.  Donald Trump infamously said we should take 50% of Libya’s oil.  Sorry, Don, but the days of the United States taking anything are over.  It’s time we all realized that.  Denial means that we will remain stuck in a vision of the world and of ourselves that is no longer aligned with reality.  Such denial means that we will not, at both the national and individual level, solve our real problems.  Such denial will lead to our decline.  Let’s not go there.

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